Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Sad End of the Duchess of Windsor – by our friend Hugo Vickers

One of the Duchess's greatest pleasures in life was the presence of her pugs, Ginseng and Diamond. The Duke of Windsor's valet once said they were like the children the couple never had. They ate from their own bowls and even travelled to New York with the Duchess.

When the Duchess fell ill, her nurses feared the dogs might infect her, so Ginseng and Diamond were taken away and lived elsewhere on the estate in Paris until they died. The Duchess never saw them again

While some of these figures were honourable, others were not. There are dangers for rich widows who have considerable worldly goods, if they are frail, more so if their affairs are handled by a dishonest lawyer and an avaricious banker, their health overseen by a doctor acting on the lawyer's instructions.

The Duchess was suffering from the early symptoms of Crohn's disease. Determined to retain her girlish-figure, she did not eat properly and was known to survive on nips of vodka.

Initially, though, all seemed well. Between 1972 and 1975, photographs showed the Duchess at society occasions in Paris, arriving in New York, or strolling along a beach in Biarritz. There were occasional interviews, and at least one photo-session with her pugs in Paris.

Without the Duke, however, age, frailty and grief would take their toll. Over Christmas 1972, she fell out of bed and, though in considerable pain, was not given proper treatment. Only in the new year was it realised that the 76-year-old Duchess had broken her hip. After surgery, she recovered, and was eventually able to walk without a stick.

While the Duchess was in hospital, Blum took the first step to assuming control over her. She dismissed Sir Godfrey Morley, the British lawyer who had handled the Duke's affairs and his last will, after persuading the confused Duchess that he was trying to get his hands on her money.

Hardly had the ink dried on a letter appointing Blum as Wallis's sole legal representative than she set to work. The French government confirmed no tax would be paid on the Duke's estate. In return, the Duchess signed a codicil to her will leaving items to France's great museums, in gratitude to the City of Paris for providing the house on the Bois. As a result of these arrangements, Blum was advanced in the Legion d'Honneur, the highest decoration in France.

After the Duchess's two secretaries left her employment in 1975 and 1978, Blum was able to control the situation as she wished.

Blum had once merely been an adviser, summoned when required. Now the relationship had been twisted to her utter advantage.

Blum and the Duchess had almost nothing in common. The Duchess lived her life at the height of fashion; Blum wore dowdy dresses or tweed suits and an ill-fitting wig, which caused the Duchess quiet mirth. The Duchess was light and social; Blum was austere and ruthless. Her eyes were as narrow as those of an old Mandarin.

The Windsors lived in a grand villa on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, 20 minutes from central Paris. It was leased to the couple by the City of Paris for a peppercorn rent

The Duchess's health concerns continued. The broken hip had been bad enough, but now came a blow from which Wallis would never fully recover. Late in 1975, she suffered a perforated ulcer that led to a severe internal haemorrhage.

She was taken to the American Hospital and was sent home the following January a wreck. It would, many said, have been better if the Duchess had been allowed to die in hospital. Instead she was destined to live a pathetic existence for the next ten years, virtually unable to move and later unable to speak.

Sometimes, when in pain, she pleaded with nurses, hoping 'the Good Lord would take her away'. As one of the nurses said: 'It gives me great distress to see HRH, who was once a great lady, admired and feted throughout the world, who showed courage which was widely respected, becoming little by little a lady who suffers terribly.'

The Duchess had relied heavily on friends for stimulation but now Blum decided who saw the Duchess, arguing that visitors made her flustered. She was often present to hear what was said. None of this was pleasant for the Duchess.

One of those who succeeded in seeing the Duchess was Robin Beare, a distinguished plastic surgeon. Blum ensured the Duchess was sedated so she could not tell him anything. The only indication that she recognised Beare was a single tear rolling down her cheek.

Blum was continually instilling panic into the Duchess about overspending. In January 1976 she announced that the Duchess had given instructions about which silver and porcelain objects should be sold. 

Twice in February the Duchess was asked to sign new authorisations for Mr Amiguet to sell objects she might no longer wish to keep. The Duchess was still alert enough to refuse to sign these. I have seen the unsigned letters.

Despite the wish for secrecy, rumours of the sales spread in Paris with Blum suspecting the Duchess's staff. As a result, several people were dismissed.

Between September 1976 and December 1977, there was quite a distribution of spoils, none of which the Duchess would have been aware of.

According to documents I have seen, Mr Amiguet was given earrings, a bracelet and a necklace. The Duchess's doctor, Jean Thin, received watches and a gold box, despite the fact he believed that the Duchess's mind was rapidly deteriorating and it would soon be incapable of making any decisions.

Yet Dr Thin also believed her physical health was quite good and she might live quite a while.

Blum received a ring with an oval amethyst surrounded by turquoises and diamonds, an amethyst necklace and a Louis XV gold box.

My research reveals that sales in January and March 1976 made about $470,000, which Mr Amiguet deemed but a fraction of the expenses the Duchess was incurring. Further sales went on until her death in 1986.

After the Duchess returned from hospital, the staff were told that she had to be kept in the upstairs rooms. If she did come downstairs and noticed any item missing, she should be informed that the French government had asked for the piece to be restored.

In May 1977, a number of items were taken by Blum, ostensibly to be handed out as gifts. Among them were a pair of earrings made of rubies, emeralds and diamonds; a bracelet with round brilliants on platinum; a watch-bracelet with two snake chains; a gold Cartier watch; a gold cigarette box with a map of Europe, inscribed 'David from Wallis 1935 Christmas'; and a gold tiepin with a blue enamel 'E' under a crown.

A glimpse of how badly her health had deteriorated was provided by Sir Nicholas Henderson, the British ambassador to Paris, who was allowed to see Wallis in 1977. He later wrote: 'Her hands, which caught the eye immediately, were badly contorted in shape, and paralysed. Our handshakes were perfunctory. There is nothing in the face to recall that distinct and dominating look known to the whole world.'

The ambassador concluded: 'She was perfectly compos mentis but it was as though living was a big task and could only be coped with for short intervals at a time.'

Blum took action to secure final power in October of that year. She came to the house with a notary and his clerk bearing a Power of Attorney document. The purpose of this document was to cover all Blum's various actions and activities.

The Duchess could not sign because her hands were twisted with rheumatoid arthritis, so Blum sent the clerk to the Duchess's room to gain her verbal assent. The clerk began to read the document in French. Not surprisingly, the Duchess could not understand and asked if he would mind translating this document into English.

The clerk pretended that his English was not up to that and explained to the Duchess that it merely confirmed existing arrangements. The Duchess said something like, 'Oh, all right,' at which point the clerk left the room. Blum had what she wanted; she was ready for the Duchess to die.

By the spring of the following year, the Duchess ceased speaking. She had almost ceased to exist as a person. Wallis could hardly move without assistance, being turned to the right and left, moved from her bed to a couch, and then back again.

Blum now had as near full control of the Duchess as she could have, but this was not enough: she now added the role of historian to her selfappointed duties.

The lawyer had several theories that she wished to promulgate. The first, for some bizarre reason, was that the Windsors had never had sex before marriage; Diana Mosley later joked that Blum even gave the Duchess back her virginity. The second was more credible: that the Duchess had not wanted to marry the Duke and had certainly not forced him to abdicate.

Blum claimed that the Duchess had to be defended from allegations made by authors and journalists, that Wallis was upset by such things. In truth, she was beyond caring.

While in Paris in autumn 1978, I heard that the Duchess had lost use of her hands and feet and had to be carried from her bed to a clinical couch. She no longer spoke and had apparently put on 25lbs. She lived in a world of her own, lingering on, spoon-fed, miserable. In 1981 a senior doctor at the American Hospital told me the Duchess was in a pitiable state.

Many of the Duchess's staff had gone, but there was one more figure for Blum to erase from the picture. Eventually, she fell out with Mr Amiguet on the grounds that he refused to send her money from Switzerland, where the Duchess's account was held. What happened to the Duchess's millions there remains unclear.

One person who saw much of the Duchess was Elvire Gozin, her night nurse from 1976 to 1986. She said the Duchess 'died in a slum'. Visits by a hairdresser were terminated and expensive creams from Estee Lauder were replaced by cheap make-up. The bedclothes became tattered. Elvire described her as 'a prisoner in her own home'.

Elvire took photos of the Duchess in her bed, which were published after her death. One shows the head of the Duchess just visible over the sheets, with medical paraphernalia by her bed  -  machinery that kept her alive.

The nurse went twice to London to try to inform the Queen of the Duchess's plight. On her first visit in 1980, Elvire arrived at the gates of Buckingham Palace but was not admitted. In 1983, she saw the Dean of Windsor, Michael Mann, who said he would pass her message to the Queen and would respond. Elvire heard no more.

As further indication of the low ebb that the Duchess had reached, Dr Thin admitted to a newspaper that the Duchess had such serious arthritis that he had ordered her wedding ring from the Duke to be 'gently cut off'.

During these last years, the Duchess had one other visitor  -  the Right Reverend James Leo, Dean of the American Cathedral in Paris. The Dean found the house depressing, the Duke's regimental drums gathering dust, sad relics 'under brooding stillness', the garden with its 'memories of lavish summer evenings' now 'weeds, crab grass and ghosts'.

It was Leo who was summoned to perform the last rites in April 1986. He said: 'She squeezed my hand during the last rites and again as I read a short passage from the Bible.'

The Duchess died on April 24. A memorial service was held in Paris, attended by Blum, who enraged the French by putting herself forward as chief mourner.

Eleven weeks after the Duchess's death, her friend Commandant Paul-Louis Weiller invited me to look around the house. The hall was dimly lit, while tables with eagles under them stood either side of the drawingroom door.

The Commandant turned to me and said quietly: 'You would like to see the room where the Duchess died, I suppose? I have to be very tactful.'

In her bedroom, the double bed was stripped. Only the base, covered in blue silk, remained. An old white telephone was on the floor. There were two shelves either side of the bed and under the glass of one was a photo of the Duchess in bed holding her pugs, her auburn hair done to perfection.

In 1986, Mohamed Al Fayed acquired the lease on the house and in 1998 he sold some of the remaining contents at auction in New York. By this time Blum had been dead four years.

I had my eye on a gouache from the Duchess's bathroom by Dmitri Bouchene, a talented but largely unknown Russian artist. I came home with 20 Bouchenes. I look at them every day. To me they symbolise the best of the Parisian taste of the Duchess.

She was a woman of style and elegance, but a woman who had suffered too long. After years of pain and powerless, silent indignity, she was at last beyond the grasp of those who had harmed her.

1 comment:

  1. Hugo Vickers combines his usual well-researched material, his clean, concise and descriptive style of writing with his passion about the Duchess' horrific last decade to create a must read for every Windsor aficionado.
    Rene Silvin